November 25, 2019

Two Degrees between Me and Fidel

By Abram Lutes 

History is not made by individuals, but sometimes history places individuals at the heart of momentous events. The leadership and moral character of these individuals can thus, sometimes, change the world.

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz is one such individual, also known simply as “Castro”, or affectionately just “Fidel” in much of Latin America. Having spent some time in Latin America, I too think of him as Fidel.

The son of a Galacian immigrant, raised on a small hacienda in rural Cuba, his legacy is can now be felt on every continent of the world. From the streets of Havana, where millions mourned him at his funeral, to the battlefields of Angola, where Cuban soldiers routed the forces of apartheid and settler-colonialism, you will find at least someone who not just remembers the furious struggle for justice, but Fidel’s personal compassion and dedication. When Fidel left this world on 25 November 2016, heads of state representing over three-quarters of the world’s population sent condolences, and a moment of silence was held at the UN. Readers might remember what our own Prime Minister Trudeau said of Fidel:

“Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century. A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation. While a controversial figure, both Mr. Castro’s supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for el Comandante.”
Such a glowing endorsement of a communist revolutionary was exceptional for Trudeau, but not for the rest of the world. Progressive and anti-imperialist forces from Ecuador, to Syria, to China remembered his valiant, decades-long struggle for dignity, socialism, and self-determination not just for Cuba, but for nations across the world.

Much has been written of the monumental achievements of Fidel and the Cuban revolution; the complete eradication of illiteracy, the building of a “healthcare paradise”, the permanent end to homelessness, the massive advances in fighting racism and sexism, the surges in LGBT and intersex rights and services. Much more can and should be written on these great victories for working people, achieved in the context of poverty and underdevelopment, but this piece is more personal. I hope that in sharing it, the human impact of these victories is better understood.

When I was in El Salvador, I had the pleasure and honour of meeting Salvadoran artist Miguel Ángel Ramírez when I visited the Casa Taller Encuentros where he teaches in Panchimalco, El Salvador. I remember a lot of really profound sights and experiences there, but meeting Ramírez stands out in my memory for two reasons: one, his own ingenuity, charisma, and love for life and two, the way he described his friend Fidel Castro

Ramírez and the whole team at Casa Taller put incredible work into the facility: a vine-trail roof covered most of the Casa's grounds, meticulously maintained plants and water fixtures surrounded the outdoor studio areas, and the paint on many of the buildings was so bright that they must have been touched up almost daily.

The lobby where Ramírez met our group was humble though, a plain concrete room with a few of his students' work and a few pieces which he (shyly) admitted were his. He greeted each of us individually and said something nice about each of us in particular. I held back from the group and so he came to me last. He shook my hand, and we exchanged names. He grinned as our handshake concluded, "your look reminds me of an old friend of mine" he said in Spanish.

- Who?, I asked, wanting to make polite conversation.

- Fidel, he said, beaming.

When he said the name, it took me aback. At first I was unsure if I had heard him right - my Spanish is far from perfect.

- Fidel Castro? I asked

 - Yes, Fidel Castro Ruz. El Commandante," Ramírez said, still smiling. "I knew him."

After I got over my initial shock (repeatedly asking him, "you knew Castro??"), we talked a lot about Castro.

"It's the beard," Ramírez said to me. "That's what makes you look like him."

Ramírez met Castro during the Salvadoran civil war, when Ramírez was a Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) supporter and there was a constant flow of FMLNistas back and forth from Cuba as the revolutionary government trained the leftist coalition members into guerrilla soldiers to fight the US-backed dictatorship in El Salvador. It was in wartime that Ramírez and Castro met, but it was in peace that they would become close friends.

I learned lots about Castro from Ramírez. I learned that just to utter the name "Fidel" in Central America invoked his legacy, prompting adoration from the commandante's many supporters in the region, and quiet, fearful respect from his foes. Nobody even bothers to add "Castro", everyone knows who is meant when someone says Fidel.

I also learned about his deep love for the arts, and his instrumental role in the creation of Casa Taller.
Casa Taller is funded by many organizations now, but the first person Ramírez thought of when he was looking for support for his art school was Fidel. Sure enough, after a correspondence between Ramírez and Castro, the Cuban Ministry of Education was the first to Casa Taller and is one of its main sustainers. Casa Taller now provides some of the most underprivileged communities in El Salvador with world-class fine arts education accredited through the Cuban university system. The work of Ramírez and his team, made possible by Cuban support, is considered the single largest contributor to the massive reduction in gang violence Panchimalco has seen over the last few years.

Fellow socialist and Latin American head of state Rafael Correa said at his funeral that Fidel "would live on in the faces of the children who go to school, in the sick whose lives are saved, in the workers who own the fruits of their labour." I would add to that that a little bit of Fidel lives on in Panchimalco.
Interior of Casa Taller 

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